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Brazil Has an Idea to Fix Rampant Gun Violence: More Guns

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/5/2019
a close up of a gun © Tommaso Protti for The Wall Street Journal

SÃO PAULO—Like millions of victims of rampant gun crime in Brazil, Claudio Sotero Júnior is clear about what he wants: his own gun.

His store near São Paulo selling bodybuilding supplements has been robbed at gunpoint six times since he opened it in 2006. Three years ago, the 41-year-old had to give up teaching kickboxing classes to pick up his wife from work every day after gunmen robbed and sexually assaulted her at a bus stop.

If it weren’t for Brazil’s strict firearms legislation, he said, he’d buy a Glock pistol to keep at work, and guns for his wife, sister and parents to defend themselves in what has become the world’s most murderous country.

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Brazil racked up nearly 64,000 homicides in 2017, the highest overall number in the world. Over 70% of those were committed with firearms, widely available to criminals on the black market. Here in São Paulo, a megalopolis of 12 million people, over a quarter of residents say they have been held up at gunpoint at some moment in their lives, according to a study this year by the city’s business school Insper.

“It’s not fair, we’ve become hostages in our own country,” said Mr. Sotero Júnior. “We can’t take it anymore.”

Now, Brazil is set to embark on an experiment that will determine what happens when you loosen gun restrictions in a country battling an overpowering wave of gun crime.

President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who takes office Tuesday, adopted a signature finger-gun salute during his campaign. The ex-army captain has promised a dramatic reversal of the country’s 15-year-old gun legislation to make it easier for citizens to obtain firearms.

“All the hoodlums already have guns, it’s only the good guys who don’t!” Mr. Bolsonaro said in a radio interview earlier this year. He said Saturday that he plans to issue a decree allowing all Brazilians without criminal records to own firearms.

Supporters of the measure say arming law-abiding citizens might cause Brazil’s criminals to think twice about carrying out a crime like a carjacking or home break-in. Violence experts say simply adding more guns to the mix without tackling the root causes of crime will only make the murder rate climb faster.

Crime has soared as Brazil’s police forces, starved of resources during the country’s 2014-16 recession and plagued by corruption, have been fighting a losing war against some of the world’s most powerful drug gangs. Critics have also blamed the government for the lack of a national public security plan, calling for more investment in investigative policing and community policing.

Under a 2003 law, Brazilian civilian gun owners must be at least 25 years old, provide proof of a steady job and have no criminal history, among other requirements. The biggest stumbling block, critics complain, is that federal police have the final say over whether applicants really need a gun. Police frequently decide they don’t.

Proposed legislation would take away the police’s veto power, reduce the age required to buy guns to 21, and make gun permits permanent rather than valid for only several years. Civilians could also be allowed to carry firearms in public.

Terrified of spiraling crime and losing faith in the police and the courts to protect them, Brazilians—with a growing belief that they are on their own in an incompetent state—are warming to the idea. An October poll by Datafolha showed 41% were in favor of loosening gun laws, up from 30% five years ago. A Paraná Pesquisas poll in 2017 found that a majority of Brazilians—53%—now support easy access to guns for self-defense.

Opposition is highest among women. But in the eastern suburbs of São Paulo, in one of the city’s growing numbers of shooting ranges, more women are also signing up for training, said Cristiane Rodrigues de Souza, an instructor. The club offers Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day specials, she said, picking up brass bullet casings from the floor. “Ooo, this one is still warm!” she said, apologizing for her chipped nail varnish—an occupational hazard of loading pistol magazines all day.

More than 200,000 people have been killed by guns in the past five years, according to government estimates. School children in some of Rio’s poverty-stricken favelas are now used to lying on the floor during shootouts, praying not to get hit by the stray bullets that routinely kill innocent bystanders.

The wealthy now bulletproof their cars and even houses, living in fear of hijackings at stop lights and armed thieves entering their homes. Private armed security guards are common.

“No one feels safe any more…anywhere in Brazil,” said Ricardo Gouvea, 47, a beefy sales executive, training at the shooting club in São Paulo one Friday evening this month with his wife. “Everyone has a right to defend themselves.”

Brazil has one of the lowest rates of firearm possession among civilians in Latin America, both legal and illegal, partly due to the tough gun control legislation. It has also escaped the types of military conflict that have left other countries in Latin America awash with weapons.

Today about eight in every 100 Brazilian civilians possess a firearm, compared to 10% of Colombian civilians, 13% of Mexicans and almost 19% of Venezuelans, according to estimates by the Small Arms Survey. In the U.S., it estimates there are about 120 guns for every 100 civilians.

Most of the gun-related homicides in places like Mexico and Central America are carried out with U.S.-made weapons that have been smuggled in. In Mexico, 70% of guns recovered at crime scenes between 2011 and 2016 were bought in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Brazil’s murders are largely carried out with guns made in the country and originally sold legally.

Brazil has its own firearms maker, Forjas Taurus, based in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. With a near-monopoly over the provision of guns to Brazil’s security forces, Taurus has turned Brazil into the world’s fourth-biggest exporter of light firearms and one of the few developing nations with a major role in the global small arms trade. The company declined to comment.

About 14,000 guns, mostly Taurus revolvers and semiautomatic pistols, flooded into the black market in 2017, according to government figures. Many were stolen, often at gunpoint, from police officers, private security guards and law-abiding citizens. Others are sold by corrupt cops and security guards who then report them stolen.

Security-camera footage of one recent break-in at a São Paulo private security firm shows two unmasked gunmen ringing the firm’s doorbell, sauntering through the front door, and scooping up more than 30 revolvers, bulletproof vests and bullets before leaving on foot.

In one particularly disastrous two-week period in 2017, almost 600 guns were stolen from two courthouses in São Paulo state, where the weapons were held as evidence in scores of legal cases.

While São Paulo state says guns are no longer stored in its courthouses, after transferring most of them to the army for safekeeping, other states have yet to follow suit. In July, police uncovered plans by the powerful First Capital Command drug gang, known as the PCC, to raid courthouses across the country.

Many states failed to fully implement the gun-control law by removing guns from circulation—an unpopular measure in many crime-ridden areas—while the country also didn’t do enough to prevent guns flooding into the black market, said Tulio Kahn, a former security consultant to the government. “The problem, as ever in Brazil, is that the law is good, it just needed to be enforced,” he said.

Among criminals, illegal guns are so plentiful that drug lords give them away to their gangs. Moises Reis dos Santos, a hit man for a gang in the northeastern Brazilian town of Mata de São João, said he was 19 when his boss gave him his first one: a .38-caliber revolver. He said he had grown up admiring the young gangsters he saw swaggering down the streets, handguns tucked in the waistbands of their designer shorts.

“Without a gun you’re nothing,” he said. Now 24 and in police custody, he was arrested in November on suspicion of at least two murders.

Mata de São João’s gun violence has earned it the dubious title of the bloodiest town in Brazil. In 2016, it notched a homicide rate by firearm of 103 per 100,000 inhabitants, the highest in the country and almost five times the national average.

Rogerio Mendonça, the congressman who authored the new firearms legislation, said it is time the good guys had guns, too. “It’s obvious that the disarmament policies implemented in our country have been a failure,” he said.

Opponents of the legislation warned of a potential uptick in violence. “It would be like a tropical version of a Bruce Willis movie or an old-fashioned Western, where everyone is armed and bad-tempered, going around shooting each other over the smallest thing,” said Rafael Alcadipani, a security expert at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation, a higher education institution focused on public administration. Mr. Alcadipani has been embedded in Brazil’s police force for the past six years.

Mr. Kahn, the former security consultant, said the problem isn’t just gangs or criminals armed with illegal weapons, but ordinary law-abiding Brazilians—the “good citizens,” as Mr. Bolsonaro likes to call them. In São Paulo, the majority of murders are everyday altercations that spiral out of control, often committed by first-time offenders, he said.

While nations with more guns aren’t necessarily more violent than nations with fewer, give a country more guns and that country will likely register more deaths by firearm, according David Hemenway, professor of health policy at Harvard University.

In Brazil, Sou da Paz, a nongovernmental organization that traced thousands of guns apprehended at crime scenes across the country, estimates that 1% more guns results in 2% more violent deaths by firearm.

Many civilians aren’t interested in gun statistics. Mr. Sotero Júnior, owner of the supplements store in São Paulo, said he would feel safer with one. In a country with more violent deaths than some war zones, he said he would rather be the man with a gun, than without.

“I never wanted a gun, I don’t like them,” he said. “If I lived in a civilized country I wouldn’t need one, but I live in Brazil.”

Write to Samantha Pearson at samantha.pearson@wsj.com and Luciana Magalhaes at Luciana.Magalhaes@wsj.com

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